For so long, we in the West have become comfortable with the idea that our science, our economics, our education, and our possessions, are the things that define us; these things have come, we believe, to define our relationships, our values, ethics, morals, even our worth, and our status in this world and with one another.
To say that COVID has pulled down the figurative curtain on our ‘comfortable assumption’ about what defines and gives our live value meaning and worth, would be a severe understatement. COVID has just begun to shatter all the ways, all the things that we presume are somehow deserved, givens, expectations, the proper ways. Of course we have economists, politicians, medical specialists, professors of various disciplines, all offering their various analysis about what has and might happen. And it’s certainly important to pay attention to these analyses.
But we as Christians must go deeper that this, to the root of what it means to have life at all, and then to ask, ‘where is God in the midst of this?’ This is really difficult for us to do at this point in time for a single reason: we most often presume that we have control over our futures, that rational choice, that careful planning, that competent management or government will lead us in a direction that keeps us generally in the lifestyle we have become accustomed to. And precisely because of this it is very difficult for us to imagine what God might be doing in the midst of this COVID pandemic. It is nearly impossible for us to imagine that God could be using COVID as a test or a trial – if not as its cause – simply using its outcomes as a trial.
But I think we need to ask ourselves whether this might actually be what God is doing in the midst of this pandemic. Why? Because we have precedent for God using the most difficult of circumstances we can imagine in just this way. And that’s what we see in our story from Genesis this morning.
God says to Abraham, “take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering.” At first glance this seems a most horrific command. Sacrifice in death, the child whom you prayed, begged, and longed for. Sacrifice the child who, as I said two weeks ago, is the very extension into the future of Abraham’s and Sarah’s own life; the person, the means by which God says he will fulfil his promise to Abraham to make of him a nation. We know from this passage that Abraham’s son is spared. An angel intervenes and Abraham, standing over his son with a knife, instead sees a ram caught in a thicket and this ram becomes the sacrifice offered to God.
The story remains shocking to us though. It does so, I believe, because we are so used to dictating the terms of justice on the basis of an illusory sense of power and control over ourselves and over creation. So to imagine that God would test us in such a way, given our perspective, can seem only an affront to goodness. The test however, isn’t arbitrary or capricious. It is intended to force us to face into our brokenness, our frailty, our violence toward one another and ourselves – original sin – that manifests in each of our lives and in all of the structures and relationships we develop, in so many ways. God testing us then, is absolutely an affront to our presumption that we must depend – before we seek him – upon broken things, upon the frailty of who and what we are and what we have, upon how we have made and structured our societies, our relationships, our countries, our economy, our possessions, our governments.
We can see this in the story of Job. God allows Satan to take Job’s entire world from him. Everything that ‘makes Job who he is’ is stripped away. Likewise with Abraham in our reading this morning, the dependence upon natural procreation as providing true life, is shown to be not irrelevant – no not at all – but not primary; not the first thing to which a person must attend in order to make sense of all the other things he or she encounters in life. In other words, if you wanna know what procreation is about and use it well, if you wanna know what owning property, or managing a company, or being in relationship with people, or having possessions is about, you must FIRST SEEK GOD. And not just seek.
You see what the story from Genesis this morning suggests, I think, is that out of those things we are tested by – whether the coronavirus, illness, or death of a loved on, or the trials of our jobs, or our relationships – God shows up in his most magnified form, his most powerful, precisely because we are stripped of all the things that give us a sense of control, order, protection, that we construct apart from him, that can be conceived apart from him.
You see Isaac represents the fruit of human fertility and life: he is ‘the next generation,’ the means of human survival and perpetuation. This is a reality possible only through human procreation. We can’t will a child into existence or create them from nothing. Abraham’s trial demands that he act in accordance with the reality that it is not by his own power that his future will come about; but by God’s own fulfillment of the promise that he makes to Abraham. Abraham that is, is entirely dependent upon the action of God for God’s promise to occur. Abraham’s role in this, is to be faithful to that promise and to the reality of how that promise is going to be fulfilled: by God himself. The trial then, is reorienting Abraham to fulfill the first of the two commandment’s, summarizing the 10, that God will give in Jesus Christ: to love God first and foremost. Nothing can or will be undertaken toward the fulfillment of goodness and truth, unless it is done foremost by seeking to do the will of God. In this case, Isaac stands in not just for the fragility of human fertility but also for the ways that we come to depend upon ‘making our own futures:’ plans, projects, governments, investments, etc.
For Abraham to be willing to put the knife into Isaac, he must first give up his life (remember that his life is essentially tied to his child’s life, the perpetuation of his family line). To gain life, one must lose one’s life, Jesus Christ says. And so we see in Abraham’s act, God’s own act of sending his Son into the world to be a ‘propitiation’ or a sacrifice, taking human sin upon him as the sole true human, and obliterating its effects upon human nature. This is why living into the defects of a fallen nature can only lead to brokenness and death: because not seeking God first leads us to seek death instead. It leads us to seek things that break, hurt, fall apart, and are self and other destructive. For in God alone we find the good, the truth, the way, and life. To give up one’s life – as Isaac symbolizes, as Job’s commentary demonstrates – is to seek, in everything a person does, the will of God instead of the frail and distorted constructs we have come to depend upon.
Let me be clear that this doesn’t mean we should retreat from the world. This lesson today is about how we live in this world we have. If we see COVID as a way through which God is testing us, we are not to retreat into little domiciles of isolation, rather we are challenged to ask how those things we have depended upon, our governments, our education systems, our ideological presumptions, our medical sciences, fit with God’s will for us. It may be that we have to live in peace and order with certain aspects of our culture and society. It may be that we need to challenge others. It may be that we need to make or challenge or strive to make changes. But central to our life as Christians in the midst of what is in fact a trial in which and through which God is acting, is the recognition that we ARE NOT to put our hopes in false things, but in God himself. From there – having renounced worldly things as being our be all and end all – from that orientation of loving God first and foremost; from that turning from worldly things to spiritual things; we can seek things like justice, good governance, medical interventions – not as goods themselves, but as things and as people that belong to God, being shaped, challenged, and pressed in ways that illumine his will. Attending to this perspective or orientation to worldly events, we can engage in this world seeking to learn and share God’s truth and wisdom with others, not with condemnation, but by reflecting the love and hope we have received in him. AMEN.
One of the things that I have been turning over and over in my mind is this question: “how long O Lord.” At first, it was a question to God about how long we would be away from one another in our worship and fellowship. How long would these restrictions go on, where social distancing is often being experienced by people as social isolation and fear. If I’m honest, I’ll admit that much as I thought I was coping with it, what I was really experiencing was the rebound effect of a global trauma. I felt dead inside.
That changed as I heard about and then saw a string of events – black people killed at the hands of police officers – occur. I have spent the last two weeks or so dealing, not with a slowly unfolding shutdown, but with shock at what appears to me to be a bleak world and a bleak future. I know many of you don’t like to read and hear negative things. But my friends, to ignore what is going on in the world, to stick our heads in the sand and only speak about those things that make us feel good at a time when everything has been thrown up into the air - to not speak about it, to not question, challenge, listen, and be open to change – is to fail to take hold the gift of the Spirit we have received in God. To ignore what is going on in the concrete in the United States and Canada is to persist in the sin of systemic racism.
“How long O Lord,” these words of lament were not about racism per se. They were a cry to God from his people – individuals and the whole gathered body of Israel – to deliver them from enemies, from persecutors who physically (so likely mentally and emotionally probably sexually as well), harmed them simply for being Israelites. When will you deliver us from the hands of our enemies? When will you stop our suffering? When will we see the hope you say you have in store for us, O Lord.
Our first story from Genesis tells of the barren marriage of Abraham and Sarah. Life was understood in different terms for the Israelites than it is today (for the most part). To have life wasn’t simply about the individual, but rather about the children two individuals could bear and raise together. To not be able to have children, for Sarah, would have been experienced as an existence empty of life: the persistence of one’s family through children. Whatever we might think of that now, for the Israelites of the day, the ability to have children would have been understood in the same way we might today understand life as necessitating autonomy (rather than coercion) to serve one’s family and community, competency (education) to serve one’s community, and safe space to engage in relationships, work, and play. In other words, children provided the equivalent of those things we value today as constituting a true life. We hear that due to advanced age, Abraham and Sarah believe they shall not be able to have children. Their visitors tell them God has heard their anger, their fear, their pain and Sarah’s deep lament for her life. He hears, and, they promise, God will deliver a child to her. And so, as we know, Isaac will be born to the aged pair. A supernatural miracle of life, surpassing the finite limits of natural life. God hears. God answers.
I can hear those of you who demand a better answer than this though: really? Where was God to hear and to heal my lament about my cancer, my husband’s Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, the lament of my family or my people who lived in slavery for hundreds of years. These miracles sound lovely. So why has God not delivered me? Why has God not delivered my people? Why has God allowed racism and evil tyranny to run rampant over the globe now, or frankly, for the whole of history? How long, O Lord, will you let evil triumph. This isn’t an abstract question. George Floyd was suffocated for 9 minutes with no answer to his begging for mercy. How long, O Lord, will you let gun violence kill child after child after child in American schools? Recall the words of one parent who responded to Christians saying, ‘you’re in our prayers.’ We don’t need your prayers. We need you to act NOW.
You see there’s this thing that people do when we’re faced with a hard, brutal, stunning, shocking truth: we suddenly turn to God. Most of us spend a lot of time ignoring God in our day to day lives. Or we say we’re seeking or relying on God when in fact we’re turning to our own inclinations, our own biases, our own prejudices, in order to mitigate our fear and justify acting out of it.
I would suggest the cost of our individual and social ignorance of God in Canada and the United States – most particularly of those who call themselves Christians – is the very seat of our undoing. You see, a person whose character, whose very core self, is formed by deep immersion in God’s Word, is able to let go of their fears and their presumptions to have certainty about everything. A person who seeks God with hunger and depth, might not always agree with someone; but that disagreement will not be harsh, fear driven, so angry dismissal, harassment, violence, or social and institutional blackballing; and it won’t be antagonistic political, social, educational, job related, or medically related denial of service, or denial of disparities in access, or disparities in treatment.
A person who seeks God, that is, all of us gentiles who have merely been grafted into the root who is Jesus Christ, will have as their focus not exclusion, but the fullness of inclusion God promised first to his people, the Jews, and then second, to ALL gentiles. The disciples were all Jews. They were sent first to the Jews to fulfill God’s plan to deliver his people. They were told to force no one, nor even to try to invoke civil laws, nor divine judgment (Jesus healed the soldier’s ear and would not let the disciples ask for harm to come to people for their lack of adherence). Being grafted in to this body and its head, Jesus Christ, this WAY OF LIFE applies to us now. To follow that way is to “read, mark, learn;” to draw on those people we find in Scripture to learn from how God responds to all of them, what not to do, to be sure; but importantly, how to build, as Paul says in our letter from Romans, chapter 5, “character, and so endurance and perseverance.” Why? So that we can do the exceptionally hard work of being in relationships that often involve sacrifice and some degree of suffering, of holding back, of not lashing out in anger and fear, of not forcing or hurting others, of checking the known and unknown privileges we have so that we aren’t undermining other’s ability to see God in our words and actions.
How can we do this? The ways will of course vary in their particulars. But I think they begin right here with what Paul says to us in his letter to the Roman Church. Remember this, he says: “… since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” If we can remember that we are loved by God, desired by God, commissioned by God (given jobs or vocations to share his life with others through what we do and say), then this love that isn’t contingent on our actions, sets us free to really open up so we can figure out what it means to concretely love others in this time of tumult, anxiety, worry, stress, and recognition that we are a very broken society in so many ways.
Why doesn’t God perform miracles in the ways we expect, with regularity and equality as we’d expect? Getting rid of the evil and uplifting the good? Why doesn’t he just heal? Why doesn’t he just end the life of the tyrant? I don’t know for sure but knowing Scripture, I can begin with this: “no one is good, no not one.” Many secular people have said that we are all capable of evil. I would go further and say that I don’t know a person that hasn’t done evil. To wipe out the ‘tyrant’ would be to flood the earth once again, to destroy all people, who, as we know, are all sinners through the ‘one man’s sin.’ Why doesn’t God heal the social fractures that have resulted from racism and slavery? Once again, in the scales of divine justice, would anyone survive such judgment? Where then are we left? We are not left to our own devices.
We are not left in the clutches of the Deist’s ‘clockmaker God’ who sets the world in motion at its beginning and then stands far off watching us rail at one another. No. He completed his greatest miracle in sending his Son into the world to take on our nature, to become us, to suffer the consequences of death every one of us has inside us that explodes out far too often in our actions, and to eradicate the proper end of those words and actions: DEATH. He rose so that we could enter him, to give up our distorted inclinations that lead us toward death and to follow our natural end of life in God. He enabled us to live this reality in the here and now with one another.
I don’t know what the reality of God’s love for you looks like. You need to dig into Scripture to figure out how that unfolds in how you engage with others, in what organizations your support, in how you live, where you give your money, how you treat people, in how aware you are willing to make yourself, of other’s struggles and how you might support them. That’s for you to determine; I cannot say, nor can I force, for that is not the work of a disciple. I can only remind you of God’s truth: the one who endures in love, to the end of his or her life, this is the one who will see God. AMEN.
Today marks a day that can worry many pastors and preachers: how on earth am I going to preach about the Trinity! And throughout history, people have hauled out many analogies: there’s the three leaf clover where each leaf is to symbolize the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But of course, this is sort of problematic because that suggests that God is somehow three separate things. Then there’s the analogy of the egg: there’s the shell, the white part, and the yoke; but again, same problem, it suggests that God is actually three separate substances, or things.
So people decided on another analogy (and this one is probably my favorite because I was hugely into the Transformers as a kid). If you know anything about the Transformers, you know there was this character named Optimus Prime. Now Prime, as he was called, could transform between three different types of things: a robot, a command center (where all the transformers hung out to plan how to defeat the Decepticons), and finally, a transport truck. Now the problem with this analogy – in terms of applying it to God – is that it suggests that God is one thing – the Father, in the Old Testament, then he sort of transforms into something completely different when the Son is born into our world becoming incarnate, and doing ministry here on earth. And then finally, he transforms to become a third thing: the Holy Spirit who does some other stuff like makes people speak in other languages or leads people into some new truth. So God becomes sort of like this ‘transformer’ always becoming something new.
And here’s the thing. It really took people quite a while (hundreds of years and several really anger filled councils) to figure out exactly how God who claims to be one, could be encountered in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. I mean, let’s face it, when you hear or when we pray the collects or the offertory prayer before communion, or the prayer after communion or the blessing at the end of the service and you hear, ‘in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’, surely it must sound like either we’re praying to three different gods, or to a god that can change forms at different times in different places right?
I don’t think that it’s actually possible to understand how God can be one and yet three. But our Church has insisted that God is one substance, one being who is simultaneously three Persons. This means that all three Persons we name in the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are identical, except that they are not each other. Confusing right!! I think that ultimately we have to hold this a little bit loosely because we don’t have any analogy (a comparison, that is, with any created things) that can make sense of who God is, because there is no one or nothing like God in any way. He is completely unique and unchanging. He doesn’t become who he is by moving from Father to Son to Holy Spirit, or showing up in history in these forms or persons. He is, who he is, as He himself says to us in Exodus: I am who I am, eternally unchanging. So our trying to compare him to someone or something else isn’t really going to help us.
Now the Orthodox have this really helpful way then, of thinking about God. Because we can’t compare him to anything or anyone else, the Orthodox said, okay well then how can we know God. And some brilliant theologian amongst them said, well, we can say what God is not. In theology this is known as apophatic knowledge: defining what God is not. So we’ve already said that unlike all the things he’s created, he doesn’t change; he is not becoming something else, which would imply that he was imperfect and had to come to perfection. We can say that he is not impotent in what he created. What he made will come to pass because he is perfect, what he made is perfect, and so because he is our maker, he will bring what he made to its perfection. He is not created and therefore he is not finite. Because he alone simply is, without having been created by something else, we can say that he is the creator of all that is, the sustainer of all that is and the one who brings everyone of us to perfection just how he made us.
Now see this stuff is actually really important. It’s not abstract and it’s not philosophy: it’s actually the testimony of Scripture itself. This is what the early Church was doing at the councils: it was reading Scripture and saying, how can we make sense of this God whom the Scriptures tell us about. How can we love the one God and no other gods (how can we make sense of this in light of Father, Son/Jesus Christ, and Holy Spirit we find in Scripture), how can we love neighbor and enemy (who is our neighbor when we are not of the same race, religion, language, culture, etc; and aren’t we supposed to destroy our enemies, what sense of this are we to make given the testimony of our Scriptures). This is why it took our Church hundreds of years even to come up with the Creeds that we read: it took hundreds of years to make sense of God’s testimony about himself that is recorded in the Scriptures. And guess what, the Church has had to examine these Scriptures and our testimony about who God is and how he calls us to act and react in every age, again and again and again, for God is the sole and eternal source for us to understand who we are at any moment in time, as our creator, our sustainer, our redeemer and our final end.
So what does this mean for you and I here and now. What importance does this seemingly so abstract idea of the Trinity have for us. Well one reason we say the creeds, along with reading Scripture every week, is because we need to remind ourselves continually, given our changing contexts, who God is, and who God is not. Let’s imagine for a moment that we fell into thinking that God was actually three different things – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the Holy Spirit representing our present. You see one of the things we could easily do, or claim is that the Holy Spirit is leading us into our personally chosen truth. And guess what, this has been done throughout history in the early centuries by the Montanists, in the medieval period by spiritualists who thought a third age of the Spirit had arrived, and at present, the Holy Spirit has been turned into a bit of a ‘choose your own adventure’ book where individuals and Churches all claim that he is leading them into their own personal perspective of what the truth is:, using church funds to buy a giant yacht, being the only group to recognize the end times, or leading someone to choose whether or not to marry someone or go to grad school or pick a stock, etc.
Apophatic theology – thinking about what God is not so we can figure out what we can say about who he is – can really help us here. You see it presses us back into the Scriptures where we find God with his people. Does the Holy Spirit operate on its own? Heck no. Jesus told us in the Scriptures last week, that the Spirit testifies about the things that he, Jesus, heard from the Father. So there is your first clue: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit don’t each say or do things that would be self-contradictory: the things each Person says and does conform to the one being that God is, the same God, the one God who speaks to us in the Scriptures. So in every single act or word that we hear from God in Scripture, it is the one God who acts; what the Father does, so the Son and Spirit share in this work (see for example how this manifests in the transfiguration or in Jesus’s baptism or in Jesus’s sayings in John).
So then one thing we have to be really careful about is imagining that we can write off what is said in Scripture in one place because that’s just what the God of the OT, the Father said, whereas Jesus or the Holy Spirit are doing a new thing. Presuming this is an act of self-justification, not of faith. You see in our Gospel lesson today when Jesus says, ‘go therefore, and make disciples in all the nations,’ he is equipping us not to ‘do a new thing,’ but to do an old thing: the thing God gave to us through Abraham and Moses that was fulfilled in Jesus Christ: to love God and to love neighbor and even, to love enemy. Why? Because as Jesus said through the Scriptures that unless people encounter Jesus Christ they cannot come to know their Father who in his Son Jesus sustains them in his perfect ordering of their lives, through his Holy Spirit. And how do they encounter this Jesus who gives them life? That my friends, is where you and I come in. They encounter Jesus as we live his own life, in our unique ways, in our relationships with other people. For us to be the hands and feet, the mind and eyes, the ears and hearts of Jesus, we must know this one God: Father Son and Holy Spirit. In him, as we come to know him, our lives become the testimony of God’s love for everyone he created, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
I want to conclude by sharing a reflection from a colleague of mine, Scott Sharman, a priest and theologian in the Diocese of Edmonton. He writes: “One of the mysteries we are invited to learn from the concept of Trinity is about the coinherence -- the overlap, so to speak -- of persons. The three persons of the Godhead share one and the same essence. We can say, therefore, that Divinity is so perfected in love that the three persons are not in fact able to be divided from one another at all, even if they are still rightly able to be distinguished.
From this it follows that if we, as human beings, are created in THIS image, we have the basis for some pretty radical conclusions about social justice: We are called to be persons who come to understand ourselves to be so deeply interconnected with all others that the idea of using someone's race (or gender, or sexuality, or anything else) as a reason to hate or exclude them from us becomes nothing less than a form of heresy.
Another principle we can receive from Trinitarian thought is that the persons of God are mutually kenotic. In other words, they exist to give themselves over entirely for the sake of the good and glorification of the others, even at personal cost.
Here again, if we, as human beings, bear THIS Divine mark in us, than our lives ought also be marked by a willingness to give ourselves away in compassion for everyone else; especially those who are neglected, excluded, and oppressed; even when facing up to this reality is hard.
I think it comes down to this: One of the best ways to honour the great mystery of the Triune God is to put it into creaturely actions -- to tell the truth about racism in our midst (and all the other isms that keep people apart), and to pour ourselves out to dismantle systemic abuses, whatever the personal cost.” AMEN.